Impossible Possibilities

Prof. Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications


"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[b] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David."  (Luke 1:26-32)

This morning’s lesson is a staple of the Advent/Christmas season. God dispatches the angel Gabriel to deliver miraculous news to Mary. She is with child. The Messiah, the anointed one, the coming Redeemer that prophets predicted to many generations is growing inside of her womb. Eight centuries prior it was the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who declared, "For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders, and his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." This is indeed a miracle!

By the 2nd century, the developing Christian Church began to emphasize another remarkable feature of this story—the Virgin Birth. According to both the books of Matthew and Luke, Mary and her fiancé, Joseph never rounded third base. The Holy Spirit conceived this baby. Jesus, then, was a dually constituted, both human and divine—God is his father and Mary, his mother. This is indeed a miracle!

I want to point out another miracle in the text. This is a miracle that many of us overlook as irrelevant. This is a miracle that many of us take for granted. And this is a miracle that generations before us disenchanted due to familiarity and quotidian contempt. I’m referring to where the angel Gabriel delivered the message. God dispatched the angel to a city in Galilee known as Nazareth.

Nazareth. Most of us have become immune to the theological and political implications of the name.  We identify the location with the cultural power and popularity of Jesus. But Nazareth was far from a desirable zip code. Nazareth was an area of entrenched peasant poverty. Nazareth was an area of Palestinian disrepute. Nazarites were laborers on the bottom rung of a principally two rung ladder.

The elites in Jerusalem recognized Nazarites by their inferior Aramaic. The upper echelons of Judean society maligned Nazarites for their presumed lax morality. And people who came from Nazareth would have been considered uncouth and uncultured by those of us who tend to wear our affectations proudly and flaunt our self-importance. Nazareth.

Roman authorities considered young people from this region as hotheads and thugs. Roman officials often labeled the area as a hotbed of bandits—political insurgents that those in power labeled as terrorists. This is why whenever young people from Nazareth left the city, the agents of empire marked their bodies as dangerous and deviant.

The people of Nazareth were not people with problems, a privilege afforded to the well-placed among us. The people of Nazareth were a problem people, a slur reserved for those we wish to control and contain.

We ought to even regard the label “Jesus of Nazareth” as politically loaded. It's akin to Jim the Redneck; James from the Ghetto, or Jane from the Backwoods.

Recall the first chapter of John’s gospel.  Phillip says to Nathaniel, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth." How did Nathaniel respond? He asks the most insulting and condescending question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Or recall when Jesus is on a revival tour of Galilee and returns to his hometown. Even the residents of Nazareth became trapped in the quicksand of their low self-conceptions. Despite Jesus's intellectual acumen and spiritual sophistication, his fellow Nazarenes mocked him:

"Isn't that the carpenter's son? Wasn't he born of Mary? That can't be the Son of God; we know his family. James, Simon, and Judas are his brothers, and his sisters all went to school with us. Though you ain't heard this from me, I heard Joseph ain't even that boy's real father. She was just one of the many young girls defiled by a Roman soldier. Joseph just married her to cover it up."

Despite the social connotations of the community, and despite the social vices associated with the village, God chose this place. God picked this peasant girl. This is a miracle! And from this miracle, you and I might learn something about the attributes of the God. When God decided to step through the porthole from eternity into time, there were so many prestigious places that God could have selected in the ancient world.

God could have selected Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth with its abundant water supply and centrality of location. But God selected a peasant village off the beaten path.

God could have selected the city of Rome whose very name signified power. But God selected an unwed teen mother from the backside of town to transform the spiritual composition of the planet.

And God could have even chosen the great nation of Egypt, the cradle of all civilization in North Africa. But rather than floating down the mighty Nile river, God opted to walk through the impoverished streets of Nazareth in the person of an itinerant Palestinian Jew of the artisan rank. 

I can imagine the look of anxiety on Mary's young face. Can you hear her trembling and fearful voice to Gabriel? "What you're telling me is impossible. Who is going to believe I am pregnant by God? Joseph's family could press charges under Mosaic law and have me stoned to death. And if that isn't enough, who is going to believe the Messiah comes from me? From this family? From this village? Impossible."

But look how the angel comforts her, "For with God nothing will be impossible."

This is good news for all of us here today. Many of us, like Mary, we are pregnant with possibility. For one reason or another, we might just be aborting a more productive future with the defeatist language of the impossible.

For some of us, it might be a false sense of insecurity. We think too low of ourselves. “I can never achieve that!” For some of us, it might be a false sense of security. We think too highly of ourselves. “I will never do that.” As a result, we may be making peace with mediocrity and a debilitating deal with the status quo — all in the name of what we consider impossible.

But with God, or more specifically with hope, faith, and love, the seemingly impossible is always a possibility.

Some of us sitting here today, our lives are testaments. What good was supposed to come out of your hometown? I get it. I feel the pressure. We come to Harvard and feel the need to pretend that we went out of the womb quoting Pythagorean theorem. God dispatched an angel to your mother and declared, “The child you carry in your womb is a future Fortune 500 CEO and Senator.” But there are others who are the first generation in your family to attend college, to leave the state, to purchase a home, to experience events and meet people that your parents would never fathom. This is why we ought to thank God for loving communities that supported, nurtured, and cared for us. These are the people God used to help us reach goals that they could not even imagine for themselves. They made the impossible possible for us.

It is for this reason, like Mary, we have a charge this morning. Let's celebrate the coming of Christ by striving toward the impossible. Let’s leave here attempting the unthinkable, imagining the inconceivable, accomplishing the infeasible, traversing the impassable, opening up the inaccessible, and overcoming the insurmountable.

For we serve a God that can show up in the most unlikely of places, will use the most unlikely of people, and transform the most improbable conditions. Is it just a matter of are we willing to believe? And then are we ready to make it so?